Running Streetwise Opera

 17 July 2013

Can music help disadvantaged people move forward with their lives? Matt Peacock is CEO of Streetwise Opera, who work with people who have experienced homelessness. He shared 5 tips for starting your own social enterprise.

Every year Streetwise Opera creates live performances, films and workshops with people who have been homeless. (Image: Streetwise Opera)
Every year Streetwise Opera creates live performances, films and workshops with people who have been homeless. (Image: Streetwise Opera)

Starting out in music

"I read music at Edinburgh University and decided I wanted to give being a singer a shot. I soon realised that I wasn’t going to turn any heads with my voice, but I had a really enjoyable year working as a singer in Paris.

"I did a couple of recitals, and toured Europe in a choir. I also starred in a Disney musical at EuroDisney for three months.

"When I returned to England, I put singing on the back burner. I got a flat in London and did what many music graduates do and took an admin job with a music publishing company. 

"After a couple of years I got a lucky break and became assistant editor of Opera Now magazine. I spent four years helping to edit the magazine and travelling round the world, reviewing operas and interviewing performers."

Becoming a volunteer

"During this time, I became more interested in the issue of homelessness, which I had always felt strongly about.

"During a dinner party, one of my flatmates said he was sick of hearing me complain about the state of homelessness in the UK – why didn’t I go and do something about it? A good question.

"The first opera we staged transformed the people involved."

"I found out about my options for volunteering at The Passage, a night shelter near London's Victoria Station. I spent every Monday night there for the next four years, first as a volunteer and then as a trained key worker.

"My work involved welcoming new residents, helping them to begin sorting out their benefit forms, and signposting them to other services.

"At the same time I also began working as head of marketing for an American opera company.

"The odd thing about my dual career was that I would fly in from somewhere like Madrid or New York, and realise I was looking forward to being at the night shelter more than my day job."

Setting up Streetwise Opera

"The next turning point was when an MP was quoted as saying that the homeless were 'the people you stepped over coming out of the opera house'.

"As you can imagine, this caused great debate in the night shelter. Some of the residents felt that if they performed in a professional opera production, it would help change the public’s attitude about them.

"We agreed to educate the public about homelessness, exploding some myths in the process. We staged a short children’s opera at the Linbury Studio, which is part of the Royal Opera House, as a fundraiser for the night shelter, and it transformed the people involved.

"Everyone agreed that this idea needed to continue, so Streetwise Opera was born.

"We now employ a small group of full-time and part-time office staff, together with part-time regional co-ordinators and a larger group of freelance workshop leaders.

Challenging perceptions of classical music

"I love the fact that I’ve been given the chance to prove the power music can have for society. Music can reach people in a way that more usual interventions sometimes have difficulty with.

"Many people still assume that classical music is for the privileged."

"Showing people who have a low opinion of themselves what they can achieve is really powerful.

"The public’s perception of classical music is, on the whole, quite negative. Many people still assume that classical music is for the privileged, or that it won’t mean anything to the vast majority of people.

"This is just poor education. We have seen the power of organisations like the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela and similar projects in the UK. If people are introduced to classical music in the right way, nine times out of ten they love it.

"Our participants are exposed to all kinds of vocal music, not just opera. But the overwhelming majority love opera the most."

5 tips for starting a music charity

1. Be prepared to juggle jobs to survive financially

"In the first 12-18 months of running Streetwise, I didn’t really get paid. I had to support myself with other freelance work – particularly journalism and singing. I was lucky to have some savings to dip into.

"Once I raised enough money for a salary, after about a year, I was able to drop the other work."

2. Be passionate about your project

"I’m pretty passionate about homelessness, which helps a lot with the stress and responsibility of running a charity.

"People say, ‘It’s impossible that homeless people would perform in an opera.’ Wrong!"

"I enjoy proving people wrong when they say things are impossible. People might say, ‘It’s impossible that homeless people would be able to perform in a professional opera show, or that they'd like classical music.’ Wrong!

"Passion for the work is important, as is being able to infect other people with this passion. That’s what constitutes a leader in my opinion."

3. Balance training with experience

"I came into this with absolutely no experience of running a company, fundraising, managing projects or hiring staff. I learned a great deal on the job.

"After a few years, I was lucky enough to get a place on the Clore Leadership Programme, which was an incredible experience.

"I would always say experience beats anything else, though. I think apprenticeships are often more useful than courses.

"Having said that, some courses will provide skills that can then be applied practically very easily, and on a number of occasions courses have shown me that I’ve been doing something wrong for ages that I didn’t know about!"

"Don’t be afraid to do a lot of work experience – it’s brilliant experience. We couldn’t really exist without the help of volunteers."

4. Learn to take risks

"Taking risks is vital, in my opinion, both in the social welfare and arts sectors.

"At Streetwise, if we weren’t willing to take risks, our work wouldn’t have started. Because we took risks, we've come up with new ways to support homeless people.

"Taking risks is vital, in my opinion, in both the social welfare and arts sectors."

"It’s inevitable that you have to take risks in starting something – particularly starting something that doesn’t have a precedent. I always maintain that if it was easy, someone would already be doing it. 

"We’ve come up against people, particularly in the homeless sector, who remain unconvinced that the arts are anything more than a distraction for homeless people, rather than an important tool for personal change.

"I find instincts very interesting – I work a lot on gut feeling. Sometimes it’s spot on, and other times I make mistakes, but ultimately you have to believe in what you’re trying to achieve if you're doing something entrepreneurial."

5. Don't overwork yourself

"Do you need to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Absolutely not. Is it possible to balance work and life in a job like this? Absolutely yes.

"It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking ‘I must devote my whole life to this work, and leave the office at two in the morning.'

"If you’re running a small start-up, it is clearly more than a job, and it can help motivate you to regard it as such. 

"But I've made the 'working late every night' mistake before. If you work normal hours and take regular holidays, you will be more equipped to do a better job.

"Of course there is weekend or late night work occasionally. but that usually happens in any theatre or music job.  

"Finally, I think it’s really important in any field to treat other people with respect and kindness. We’re all in this together, and sometimes it's hard, but if you are able to help each other in the industry, I think it helps everyone, including yourself."

What do you think? Can music help people in need to move on with their lives?

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